Convocation ‘20: Makda Mulatu

A Time to Learn, a Time to Discover

Donna McKinnon - 11 June 2020

It took two years for Makda Mulatu to fully commit to one area of focus as a student in the Faculty of Arts, but it wasn’t so much indecision as it was a deep curiosity that kept her from declaring a major, which she would eventually do, in English and Film Studies.

Curiosity (and hard work!) defined Makda’s time at school. Not only did she take courses from a variety of disciplines, she also took advantage of the many opportunities available to her, including Arts Work Experience, where she worked as a Student Story Writer with University of Alberta International, and a two-month study abroad term in Cortona, Italy. She also earned a Certificate in International Learning and had her poetry published in Glass Buffalo. In 2018, she received the L. June Kelly Prize in Introductory Poetry, and the next year, the Darren Zenko Memorial Prize in Creative Writing, from her department.

Although she describes herself as a homebody, Makda did not shy away from bringing that same curiosity and sense of adventure to local community initiatives. For several years, in addition to her academic studies, she volunteered as a production assistant for Black Arts Matter, Alberta's first multidisciplinary arts festival dedicated to celebrating and serving Edmonton’s black artists. The competitive skater also volunteers for Kids on Track, where she provides skating lessons to low income and immigrant families.

She says the best thing about an Arts education is that it is the study of stories and storytellers. For Makda, the story is just beginning.

What drew you to the area of your study?

Choosing what I wanted to study in university was a bit of a struggle for me because there were so many things that I wanted to explore but didn’t know if I should commit to. I’ve always loved reading and writing so I knew that English was probably going to factor into the mix somewhere, I just didn’t know exactly how.

My first two years in the Faculty of Arts were spent undeclared which gave me the opportunity to take all kinds of courses in departments like Women’s and Gender Studies, Modern Languages and Cultural Studies, and Political Science (which eventually became my minor). One of the things that I enjoyed most about my degree was how interdisciplinary it was. I was able to tailor my studies to my specific interests while also being able to draw from so many different areas of knowledge. I never felt like I had to pass up on any opportunities to take cool classes.

I believe that an Arts education is ultimately the study of stories and storytellers. Whether you’re in the more empirical social sciences or the more creative fine arts, everything comes back to the stories we tell about ourselves and the world around us. Stories about our bodies, families, histories, languages, politics, art, environment…the list goes on and on. Our job as scholars in these fields is to identify who is telling these stories, how they originate, what purpose they serve, and — more importantly — how they evolve. Having the tools to be able to discover, unpack, and reframe our own stories is a really powerful thing.

What is the most remarkable thing you learned while you were a student?

I don’t know how particularly remarkable either of these are, but two lessons I will always carry with me are:

1) There is a difference between motivation and discipline. Being able to push through the hard days is less about the former and more about the latter.

2) Your identity as a student can, and should, be a point of pride; but the value of your identity outside of academics is infinite.

Did you face any significant challenges, and if so, how did you deal with it?

Other than combating the stress induced by a few frantic cram sessions and one-too-many all-nighters, one of the biggest challenges I’ve had to overcome in university has been imposter syndrome. For a long time, feeding into my insecurities about my perceived inadequacy discouraged me from being an active member of the U of A community. But talking to other students made me realize that imposter syndrome is something everybody experiences. Of course, I still have good and bad days, but now I try really hard to catch myself before slipping into any negative self-talk. I may not always believe it, but I do my best to remind myself that I deserve to be in all of the spaces I occupy.

How did you manage the challenges of navigating student life under COVID-19 restrictions and remote learning?

Although I am a self-professed homebody, managing my responsibilities during COVID-19 was incredibly difficult. When things started shutting down, I had been juggling a heavy academic workload and two different part-time jobs: one writing digital content for University of Alberta International and another coaching figure skating. Thinking about how I was going to meet all of my deadlines and honour all of my commitments was overwhelming, to say the least, and it definitely took me a couple of weeks to adapt.

Eventually, I was able to establish some semblance of a daily routine in order to give my days structure. Although it was hard to stay focused while working from home, I made sure to give myself lots of breaks and move my set-up to a different part of my house every couple of hours for a "change of scenery". When it came to my mental health, I limited the amount of news I was taking in on TV and social media.

Since wrapping up my final projects, I've been catching up on sleep, reading, spending time outdoors, and video chatting with my loved ones.

What piece of advice do you wish someone had given you when you started?

This is a cliché but it’s totally sound advice: stay present! I cannot stress enough how quickly your time in university will fly by.

What is next for you?

Good question! Originally, my immediate post-finals plans had included travelling, working, and spending lots of time with family and friends. Come fall, I wanted to undertake an internship through Education Abroad’s International Work Experience program in Berlin, Germany. However, given everything that’s unfolding as the world recovers from COVID-19, that’s been put on hold. Combine that with the fact that recreation and leisure centres remain closed at this stage of Alberta’s relaunch strategy — meaning I’m still out of a job — I have absolutely no idea what life has in store for me! Which, admittedly, is terrifying. Thankfully, I’m in a super privileged position where I’m able to live at home with minimal expenses and a great support system while I try to figure out what comes next.

Someday, I think I might like to pursue a master’s in something like journalism or international relations, but for now I’m just going to focus on taking care of myself, my loved ones, and my community.

Bonus content! As a Student Story Writer for the Education Abroad Program, University of Alberta International, Makda wrote a number of articles. Here are her favourites: 

The Future is Arts! This story is part of a series celebrating our graduates. Please join us for a virtual convocation, Friday, June 12, at 10 a.m. MST. at Registration is not required.